Love Your Neighbor
Hi, I’m Maddie. And this is the story about how I got to know God.
There are times when I look back in my life and I think, how did I get here? I am the quintessential underdog. You see, nobody in their right mind ever expected me to get this far.
I was born at 28 weeks, back in 1995 and I was absurdly small. I weighed in less than two pounds. Doctors told my parents to prepare for my death and that if I didn’t die, I would likely be a vegetable. They said I would never walk, I would never talk and I would never go to school. At one point, they said I would likely be blind by the age of 18 because of retinal detachment I had in both eyes. I was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder that is the result of damage to the upper motor cortex of my brain. In my case, cerebral palsy makes my muscles very tight, which means they’re spastic and my balance is poor. It basically means that I struggle with anything that requires motor function.
My mother struggles with mental illness and addiction issues and has for most of my life. I don’t exactly think having a child with a disability was ever on her radar. And I don’t think that she knew how to handle it. One of the earliest memories of my mother was her pointing to me and screaming, “Get this thing out of my house.” The thing that she was referring to was me and I was swiftly kicked out of the house with the dog. Through these times, I think my grandmother was my rock. And I’m so thankful to have had her in my life, for the time that I did. She was very kind. She was the first person to realize my potential when others thought I had none. She would take me in her arms, and she would laugh and say, “You know, the One who fights for you? You are never alone.” I would listen to this and think, Who are you talking about? When she was dying of cancer in hospice, she pointed over to me in front of my mother and everyone else and she said, “She is going to surprise you.” And then she was gone.
Over the next several years, my life would be enveloped by chaos. I would watch addiction completely overtake my mother and extinguish all of her joy, to make her into a shell of the person I once knew. She was completely in the grips of her addiction. I used to come home from school and check to make sure she was still living. I felt like I was watching my mother suddenly die and that my life was rapidly spinning out of control. My mother would go through weekly withdrawals where I would watch her pass out and have seizures on the floor. I would wonder if she was going to make it. Yet the words of my grandmother were still on my mind.
One night when I was about 15, my mom was having a particularly bad night and I started to talk to my grandma. I said, “I know you asked if I knew the One who fights for me and said I was never alone.” You know, I was, I was thinking back like, Why did my grandma say that I wasn’t alone? Because I feel like, so incredibly alone. Like I, I feel like I could not be more alone if I tried. That was when I just started asking, asking my grandma like, “Why? Why do you say I’m not alone? Like, why am I not alone? Like, if I’m not alone prove, prove that I’m not alone. And like, please help me because I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
A week later, I met my neighbors. So with my neighbors, um, because our house had no running water, I asked them, you know, like, “Can you fill this jug of water?” And they were like, “Sure.” So I did that for a couple of times. And so then, they got, they got curious and started to get to know me more. They were always really kind. They were like, “Would you like some food? Would you like a sandwich? Is there anything else that you need?” And that’s how I got to know them and sort of like, form a relationship with them and trust them really.
My mom, unfortunately like, when she was intoxicated, was not the nicest person and sometimes when she was not intoxicated, she was not the nicest person either. So I experienced a lot of physical and emotional abuse, that can really work to, like devalue yourself. When you have those experiences from someone who is, you know, supposed to love you, they’re supposed to be your mother and they’re supposed to love you and, and when they don’t like that, that’s really damaging. Um, so I came to my neighbors with this sense that like, I didn’t, didn’t really matter.
You know, I don’t think very many people know how to show love well and be non judgmental, like, my neighbors, were able to come alongside me in the middle of my massive chaotic mess, and say, okay, we, we’re going to help you the best that we can, and we’re going to pray and intercede on your behalf. They just sort of welcomed me into their family. And we’re like, okay, here’s, here’s a room in our upstairs, you know, this is what we’re doing, this is what we do, you’re more than welcome to come. We, we really love you and so, um, here’s all this stuff. And like, here’s what we can do. And if you ever want to talk to us, about anything, you know, feel free. So that’s, that’s what they did for me, instead of like, judging me as a person and then giving me a big lecture.
But your, your understanding of love comes before obedience, right? So in order to, like actually change, you need to be able to understand how much He loves you, because that should be the motivator that makes you want to obey, instead of trying to obey out of, you know, shame, or fear of punishment. And when I was growing up, we were told, “Don’t let anybody in the house. You don’t want anybody to see any of this. Make sure no one knows.” And so you’re sort of like living in secret, and just trying to keep to yourself. And I, you know, I will not forget this, like, when my neighbors came into my house the first time, they started to cry. And they said, “You can’t, you cannot live here like this.” And I think that’s when it hit me. Like, the situation that I was living in was, was bad.
I think part of also, when you have an abusive childhood, and you start to think that, like, everybody, everybody is like that. And so it’s just this like, very normalized to you. It becomes, the abuse that you experienced and the trauma that you experienced becomes very normalized to the point where you don’t even really think much of it, because that’s what you end up seeing every single day. To have that outside perspective and those fresh eyes on it was a little bit shocking to me. And I think, first before trying to like explain Jesus to me, my neighbors loved me.
So sometimes, you’ll encounter someone who doesn’t believe in God, and most people will say, like, Jesus loves you. And like, yes, that is true, but how are you going to get, how are you going to get to know Jesus if you don’t know what love is? It’s somewhere in the Bible, but it says, “kindness leads to repentance” and I think, I think that’s really true. Um so, I think instead of having like, some very well prepared, well thought out theological argument for a lot of people, just trying to love them to the best of your ability is your testimony to them, because they’re not going to care what you say. They’re going to care, like, what you, what you do and then they’ll be interested in what you say. I think there’s a really big difference in how you act and what you place value in if you have the Holy Spirit, if you have Christ in your life. You know, thinking, thinking back on this, I was intrigued because my neighbors were strange, strangely happy. And I remember the same strange happiness like, coming from my grandma. That made me want to trust them at a time where I didn’t really trust people or people’s intentions.
So when I met my neighbors is when I, you know, it was my first introduction to church really, and my first introduction to the Bible. I started hearing like, sermons about how like Jesus was,
was calling the tax collectors and calling prostitutes and calling lepers and calling fisherman and, and He just totally flipped, like, my ideas of what love was, and what it meant to love someone – like completely on its head. And I also saw that like, Jesus was like, unconditional about love. Whereas like, the world is, like, love is conditional and performance based. And if you don’t perform, and if you don’t have anything to give, like, people would have, people have no reason to love you, or be kind. Having an identity that says, “You’re valuable. Like, you’re inherently valuable to Me. Like, you’re valuable enough for Me to die.” It’s a lot different because you’re not, you’re not like obeying or being loved out of your expectation to like, perform, because there’s nothing that I can do to, to like, earn God’s love. He already gave it to me.
And so when, when I thought about this, as like a teenager, I was floored. But I think that should cause you a sense of awe when you look at other people too, because He loved all the other people that you’re looking at enough to die. I mean, you can look at someone, you can go, “That is someone who Jesus was willing to die for.” So I think that is like really, that was just like, amazing to me. I don’t know, it still is. Like, it still is, like very awe inspiring in my life.
My neighbors said something to the effect of like, “We all, we all have to look out for people. And I feel like our job right now is to look out for you. So that’s what we’re doing.” And I thank them for what they did, because I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for my neighbors. I, I seriously do not think I would have graduated high school or gone on to college.
Another defining moment is…because I used to go back and forth between like my neighbor’s house and my mom’s house, to try to take care of my mom, you know, and like, make sure she was okay. But she was screaming at me one time and like saying I was not her daughter.
I was like, “You’re right. I’m not your daughter. I’m His. So I think, I think knowing like, Who you, who you belong to, and Whose you are, is like really important too, because that allowed me to have a different perspective on, you know, my life and some of the things that have happened to me.
You can have a lot of things happen to you in life, and you can suffer and you can, can wander like, is God’s still good? But you know, one of the things about God is that He, He does not change. And so when you, when you place your identity in something unchanging, it can be secure and it can shape how you view the world instead of letting the world shape how you view God. When I think about my past, sometimes I am, I’m sad and angry, but I think I’m also strong. Like I draw strength from being able to say, “I’m yours. Like, I’m continually yours.” And so being able to identify not as someone who was abused, but someone who is a loved and cherished daughter of the King is awesome. It’s amazing. It’s been a major source of strength for me in my life, because I can say like, “This is who I belong to. Like, even if you don’t like me, even if you never, never like me again, if you hate me, if you scream at me, you know, if you abuse me, I can remember that I’m not yours. I am His.
Currently, I’m a 25 year old graduate student and I have far surpassed any expectations that anyone had for me.